I’m sometimes asked “what do you mean when you talk about ‘connected car’ technologies?”

I think of connected car tech as the group of exciting new technologies used to connect you to the road by more than just your hands to the steering wheel.

There many different technologies in this connected car ecosystem. There are diagnostics programs that tell car owners how their vehicles’ components are functioning. There are cameras and sensors that let drivers know when their eyes are wandering from the road. There are small plastic “plug-ins” that allow us to learn whether the routes we are taking waste time and gas. And of course, there are apps for everything – including apps that, for instance, tell drivers where open parking spaces await at a destination.

Though many of these technologies have different forms and functions, when you boil it down, pretty much all of these connected car technologies do one thing: they give us better information with which to make better decisions and get more out of our driving experiences.

This information is important because we can use it to change our behavior on the road. Why does this matter? Certainly it matters to individual drivers who want to avoid crashes, or help their cars run better, or save gas, or get to their destinations faster. But it also matters in a situations where we need a large group of people to change their actions in order to bring all of us in society benefits from those behavior changes – for instance, in order to combat climate change.

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) in Washington DC recently rolled out a report demonstrating the benefits of several of these technologies at an event hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). And I think the report shows the benefits that society – not just individuals – can gain from connected car technologies.

The report pointed out that cars, trucks, SUVs, buses, motorcycles, and heavy-duty vehicles devoured enough gasoline to drive 3 trillion miles in one year — the equivalent of one thousand trips to Pluto.

However, the report said, the merging of wireless communications with transportation can make our trips more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly.

Among the specific examples the report gave:

-Ellicott City, Maryland implemented a smart parking system that uses sensors to detect which parking spaces are open and relays this information to drivers in real time. Smart parking systems can reduce cruising by 21%, leading to associated fuel and emissions savings.

-The Smithsonian Institution implemented a telematics system across its 1,500 vehicle fleet that uses GPS tracking and wireless communications to provide fleet managers access to information such as vehicle location, driving characteristics, engine diagnostics, and maintenance needs. The system helped them reduce the fuel consumption of its fleet by 52%.

-The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania implemented an adaptive signal control system in one neighborhood where a small computer monitors incoming traffic, creates a new timing plan once per second, and sends that timing plan to each downstream intersection. This has reduced carbon emissions by 21%, travel time by 25%, and saves 247 gallons of fuel per day at those intersections alone.

 

We have seen the development of so many wonderful technologies that enable and drive individual achievement in the last few decades – the internet, email, and your smartphone to name a few. These inventions allow us to educate ourselves, increase our productivity, and participate in civic society to a far greater degree than ever before. But for the most part, when we take advantage of these technologies we do it for our own personal benefit. And there is nothing wrong with that.

However, with connected car technologies, when individual drivers learn about an open parking space and don’t spend time cruising around, or find a faster route home, or are able to diagnose a failing vehicle component and get it fixed before it starts wasting fuel, we all benefit.

Less greenhouse gas is released into the air, our climate is improved, less fuel resources are used, and the cost of gas is lowered for all of us.

These powerful societal benefits – achieved by incentivizing individuals’ behaviors – have been difficult to achieve in the past relying solely on laws and regulations aimed at restricting individuals and industries’ actions. Drafting, passing, and enforcing compliance with regulations all take enormous time and resources. So when technologies are developed that “reward” individuals for doing what is in the best interest for the group, it is something we should all support.

That’s one reason the government should consider appropriate policies built to enable these technologies. The regulatory and legal ecosystem in which they grow should be one that encourages these technologies to thrive – and the societal benefits that come with them. Sound policies on spectrum (the “fuel” of wireless technologies), data use, and other issues will all be necessary to leverage the benefits of these great inventions – for all of us.

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